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McCain's camp sharpens its message to Huckabee

February 13, 2008 |  3:56 pm

Publicly, John McCain keeps cutting Mike Huckabee some slack. But behind the scenes, in e-mails to the media and potential contributors, his staff is none too subtly driving home a simple notion: the Republican presidential race is over, and the former Arkansas governor needs to accept that.

McCain, at the start of his Tuesday night speech claiming victory in the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. primaries, commended Huckabee, saying his rival's "spirited campaign, many gifts as a communicator and advocate, and passionate supporters are a credit to him and our party."

Alluding to the relatively close contest in Virginia, McCain said Huckabee "certainly keeps things interesting, a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess."

Of course, it's easier to be magnanimous when you're the winner, especially when, as was the case in Virginia's GOP race, a win -- regardless of how narrow -- gives you all the delegates at stake.

Today, during a make-nice session on Capitol Hill with fellow Republicans, McCain continued to make nice toward Huckabee, saying he respected his "right to continue in this race just as long as he wants to."

But McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, is making a point of cutting to the chase. In an e-mail he sent out Tuesday night, he first ...

congratulated Huckabee on his "strong showing" in Virginia. But the next sentence read: "John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president."

Today, an e-mail from Davis seeking donations from McCain supporters, included a chart showing that for Huckabee to grab the GOP nod, he would need to win 123% of the 774 convention delegates still at stake -- in other words, it is a mathematical impossibility.

McCain, by contrast, needs just 35% of those delegates to pass the magic number, according to Davis' calculation.

Huckabee, who received his bachelor's degree in religion, recently shrugged off such formulas with a characteristic quip, saying he majored in miracles, not math. And he headed to Wisconsin today, site of a primary next Tuesday. He speaks tonight at the Waukesha Country Inn and Springs in Pewaukee, and has four stops in the state scheduled for Thursday.

For all his talk about remaining a candidate because McCain hasn't officially crossed the delegate threshold and the prospect he broaches that perhaps the Arizona senator will fall short, forcing some sort of back-room dickering over the nomination, Huckabee is too savvy a pol to believe in such a supernatural scenario. He knows -- and other Republicans know -- that he's playing out an endgame in this year's contest with an eye on his future within the party.

With that in mind, we won't be surprised if he stays in the race through Texas' March 4 primary. Establishing a base of support in the Lone Star State, spotlighting his political skills for GOP leaders there and improving his standing among the rank-and-file would serve him well, for instance, in a 2012 presidential bid.

Assuming a lack of divine intervention, though, it's also a good bet that the McCain camp's patience toward him will reach an end on March 5 (if not before then).

-- Don Frederick